As the Chabad emissary in Zhitomir, Ukraine, I visit Paris occasionally to fundraise and purchase supplies. In between appointments, I often step into the synagogue for a few precious moments of Torah study.
During one of these brief respites, the local shliach came in with two strangers—an older man, and a long-haired American student in his early twenties. The rabbi asked the older man if he would like to put on tefillin. At first he refused, but with a little persuasion he was soon rolling up his sleeve and allowing me to wrap the tefillin around his arm and head.
Meanwhile, the young student began walking around the shul. In one corner he stopped, took out his cell phone, and took a few pictures. Could he possibly know that seventy years ago, in that corner, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, gave a weekly Torah class? Yes indeed, on those very benches Jews had gathered to learn a tractate of Talmud from the future Rebbe.
In the 1930s, when he was living in Paris and studying at the Sorbonne, the Rebbe attended the synagogue at 17 Rue des Rosiers, where he also offered a Torah class to the small congregation.
One of those classes was on the topic of Mai Chanukah, “What Is Chanukah,” the portion of the Talmud that discusses the significance of Chanukah. The Rebbe spoke about the well-known dispute between the Greek philosophers and the sages of Israel, and the fundamental difference between Hellenistic philosophy and the wisdom of Torah.
In Jewish thought, wisdom—particularly Torah wisdom—is compared to pristine water. By contrast, he explained, the Greeks mixed the pure, spiritual water of intellect with the dust of materialism, resulting in mud, a quicksand that drags one down in a gradual but endless descent into the depths. When intellect becomes the tool of materialism rather than spirituality, it feeds egoism and selfishness.
The Rebbe noted that in Psalms Yavan, the Hebrew name for Greece, is associated with mud—(Tit ha)Yavan טיט היון. He pointed out that the very letters of Yavan יון provide a visual image of graded descent, beginning with the elevated yud י that represents wisdom, moving down to the vav ו that reaches the baseline, before the final nun ן that descends below the baseline, i.e., to the depths. Greek philosophy embodied this descent from the loftiest to the lowest moral plane.
The Greeks had wisdom; indeed, many great sages of Israel (including the Rebbe) were well-versed in secular knowledge. Their error was in its application. They used it to exalt the body and its desires above the soul, and that this is what led to their moral decline. Even the study of Torah can become like the wisdom of Greece, the Rebbe said, if one does not approach it with purity of spirit and humility. One can exploit the Torah, too, to justify his crassness.
The Greeks defiled not only the pure oil for the Temple menorah, but also the pure spiritual oil in the Jewish heart. And the miracle of Chanukah reestablished that purity—our absolute devotion to G‑d and His Torah.
This was what the Rebbe taught in Paris in 1935.
Back in the synagogue, I watched the American boy take pictures. Something was strange about the scene. Who was he, and what connection could he possibly have with this place?
“Have you put on tefillin today?” I asked him. The reply was astonishing. “Yes, I did,” he said. “I put on tefillin every day. It is the only mitzvah I still keep. Just yesterday I considered dropping it, but I decided to continue for the time being.”
It dawned on me that this young man might be a lost sheep who had once been part of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. The combination of tefillin observance and photographing an obscure setting in which the Rebbe had taught couldn’t be a coincidence.
Indeed, this was the case. He had been a student in a Lubavitcher yeshivah, where he thrived until his late teens. “But then I decided I wanted a university education. I just wanted to broaden my horizons,” he told me. “And then one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I’m observing nothing except tefillin.”
I suggested that we sit down and learn something together. Perhaps something the Rebbe taught while he was in this very place. He agreed, and we sat down to study the discourse on Mai Chanukah.
We opened the Reshimos, the posthumously published collection of the Rebbe’s private notes where the talk is recorded. The conversation proceeded in fluent Yiddish, as the young man cut into the difficult discourse with the ease of the young chassidic scholar he had once been.
“And so the whole idea of Greece, of Yavan, is represented by the very Hebrew letters for Yavan,” he explained. “Even Torah learning, when mixed with material motives, becomes a downward spiral, descending from the lofty yud to the depths represented by the dangling final nun. Step by step it makes us arrogant and conceited, turning our pursuit of knowledge into a lethal poison, a viscous quicksand from which we cannot extricate ourselves.”
Suddenly the young man stopped and closed the book. He seemed overcome with emotion.
“Rebbe!” he shouted, and remained silent for several long minutes. Finally he looked me in the eye and said, Do you understand what is going on here? The Rebbe is talking about me.
“At first there was just the yud of Yavan, the wisdom of philosophy. I just wanted to expand my knowledge. But in college, I found most of the students were more interested in having a good time than in acquiring knowledge. It was hard to separate the ideas I was studying from the moral atmosphere around me. I descended one nearly imperceptible step at a time, until I reached the depths, the final nun. The entire process was so gradual, I didn’t realize it was happening.
“The Rebbe sat here seventy years ago, and gave this lesson for me! The Rebbe is telling me, ‘I see you. I am following you. I understand the entire process you are undergoing.’”
He opened the book again and scanned the entire discourse with his cellphone, page by page.
“I can’t continue here,” he told me. “This is too big for me. I will continue later, by myself.”
His parting words to me as he left: “The Rebbe has turned over my soul.”
By Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm,
Published by Chabad.org